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September 30, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Be careful what you say; downtown street lights could one day listen in on your conversation

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The LED street lights around city hall provide light, blast music and have the potential to record video and audio

Streets lights that could be equipped with listening devices, a possibility that is drawing the concern of the ACLU of Nevada, are being tested around City Hall downtown.

Installed in July, the three street lights are not believed to be equipped with microphones or other listening devices, said Neil Rohleder of the city’s Public Works Department.

“If they are, we don’t know how to retrieve (audio recordings),” Rohleder said. He stressed that the project was never devised to test the street lights for their eavesdropping capabilities.

“There was no talk of that, no desire and no intent to do that,” he said.

However, Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU of Nevada, said he worries about police or security agencies using the devices if they are equipped with microphones that can eavesdrop on people. If the city ever approves the lamps, the temptation to use them as listening posts by Metro Police are the Department of Homeland Security would be great, he said.

“The ‘trust us, we’re from the government and are going to gather this material but not use it’ is a nonsensical statement,” Lichtenstein said.

Rohleder said the city will analyze the lights for energy cost savings and to determine how they help the downtown experience. The lights are equipped with digital banners and music.

Rohleder likened the lights to a Swiss Army knife, which can be equipped with several different tools, most of which are never used.

Intellistreets, the Michigan company that makes the lights, claims the lights can save up to 75 percent on energy expenses.

The poles also may be equipped with hidden amplifiers through which music or announcements can be broadcast, with the volume controlled remotely and wirelessly.

The lights have been installed in Las Vegas, Navy Pier in Chicago and Henry Ford Health Systems in Detroit, according to the Intellistreets’ website.

The website also points to several ways the poles can enhance security. For instance, they may be equipped with “environmental sensors” for “CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high- yield explosives), pollution, infrared, vibration, water, voice stress analyzers and gunshot.”

They also may include a two-way, hands-free emergency call system and “optical recognition,” described as a platform that “analyzes images between sensors and can direct PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) cameras and situational awareness to the end user.” Further, they have electronic banners to help people get around “via sequenced lights, graphic banners and audio simultaneously."

The federal Department of Homeland Security may also find the street lamps handy.

“Intellistreets provides a platform and many developed applications to assist DHS (Department of Homeland Security)…in protecting its citizens and natural resources,” the Intellistreets website says. The site doesn’t provide more details on how that works.

The three lights outside City Hall were installed in July at a cost of $19,000. The project didn’t require City Hall approval, Rohleder said, because the cost was lower than the $25,000 threshold required for council consideration.

Others, however, are looking at the lights with careful consideration.

In light of revelations over the last several months about the federal government’s ability to collect vast amounts of electronic data from around the world, including domestically, Lichtenstein said he has “many concerns” about the devices.

“The idea that they could be on the street eavesdropping to pick up conversations that are not designed to be delivered to anybody other than the other two people who are talking seems like a privacy violation,” Lichtenstein said. He said street lights equipped to listen in on conversations would be “a First Amendment issue.”

Rohleder said the six-month test project will end early next year. After that, decisions about whether to purchase the street lamps and how they might be used would be up to members of the City Council.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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